Compassion for the Tested

By Vicki Zakrzewski | March 26, 2013 | 0 comments

School-testing season is here—and a little compassion can go a long way in relieving the stress for all involved.

We’re all tested during school-testing season—students, teachers, administrators, family members, and I’m going to throw in the public good, too. This is when the creaking and groaning of our antiquated, industrial-era education system cries out its shortcomings—and fully ignores the latest research, not to mention the well-being of everyone who is being tested.


Experts in organizational psychology tell us that the reward and punishment system of an organization reveals very quickly what it values. In schools, the rewards and punishments are pretty obvious. The number one value enshrined in our education system, as revealed by its incentivized rewards, is test scores. Period. There’s nothing else.

Because of this, students wonder at the meaning, value, and relevance of what they’re learning—and suffer high rates of anxiety and depression. Teachers, whose jobs depend on the bottom line of students’ scores, are burned out. Administrators and superintendents, who preside over all this pressure-cooker busyness, have crazier schedules than all the rest and leave the profession entirely after an average of only three years on the job.

In other words, the testing culture of our schools is stressing everyone out and turning many of our schools into toxic work environments.

We know from science that heaping more stress upon stressed-out people does not solve the problem that caused the stress in the first place. Our brains just don’t function as well when high levels of cortisol over-activate our fight-or-flight system. We lose our ability to think clearly and make good decisions—not to mention the havoc wreaked on our immune systems.

Unfortunately, our educational model isn’t going to change anytime soon. So what can teachers and administrators do in the meantime to manage the stress of testing? Here are some research-based tips:

1) Show compassion. Scientists have found that teachers in amplified testing environments who are providing enormous support for students—many of whom do not receive any at home—need even greater support from their administration. And teachers who feel supported by their principals, are better able to support their students.

Treating each other with compassion not only fosters this kind of support, but can also counter the effects of cortisol. And the benefits go both ways: Being on the receiving end of a kind, understanding word can do wonders for alleviating stress or pain, while the person who expresses compassion gets a boost in positive emotions. These kind words lower blood pressure, heart rate, and cortisol levels in both the giver and receiver.

2) Talk to yourself—kindly. Acting compassionately towards others is sometimes easier said than done. But acting this way towards yourself is often impossible—especially in our hard-driven, success-focused culture. Yet, research tells us, time and again, that a little self-compassion can go a long way in lowering our cortisol levels. And by lessening our cortisol, we make it easier for ourselves to act compassionately to those around us.

For those who may be concerned that practicing self-compassion during testing will have the effect of “letting yourself off the hook”—no worries. It does just the opposite. Kristin Neff, who is the expert in self-compassion, writes, “Research shows that self-compassionate people tend to take more 
responsibility for past mistakes. Just as a compassionate mother tries to motivate her child 
through kindness rather than harsh, belittling criticism, we can motivate ourselves much more with kindness rather than harsh, belittling self-criticism—and there’s an 
abundance of research supporting the maladaptive motivational qualities of self-criticism.”

In other words, you’re more likely to do well if you treat yourself with kindness rather than beating yourself with a stick.

3) Stay mindful and use a “splat wall.” When people are stressed, sometimes they just can’t help saying mean things or emotionally “vomiting” all over us. This is where the practices of mindfulness and a “splat wall” come in handy.

The practice of mindfulness means maintaining a non-judgmental, moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environments. This kind of awareness helps us become more conscious of when we’re feeling stressed, which allows us to then deal with the stress in a healthy way.

Mindfulness also makes us more attuned to what others around us are feeling—and that’s where the splat wall comes in. A friend of mine who has been practicing mindfulness for many years introduced me to the idea of a splat wall. He says that when another person says something negative to him, he imagines himself surrounded by a plastic wall. Instead of letting the negative words enter his mind and cause all sorts of inner turmoil, he lets the words “splat” onto the wall where he can “look” at them and consider if they contain any truth.

To me, this is mindfulness at its best. Not only does it keep us from getting overwhelmed by other people’s stuff, it helps us respond in a compassionate and conscious way—which will lower the stress of everyone involved.

Michael Fullan, an expert in leadership and change in schools, writes, “There’s no point in lamenting the fact that the system is unreasonable, and no percentage in waiting around for it to become more reasonable.”

While I am more hopeful than Fullan that our school system can and will change, I do believe that we have to do the best we can with what we have at the moment while continuing to work towards a more humane educational system. And a little compassion for ourselves and each other can go a long way in starting to make that change.

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About The Author

Vicki Zakrzewski, Ph.D., is the education director of the Greater Good Science Center.


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